Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Sidgwick, Henry

SIDGWICK, HENRY (1838–1899), philosopher, born at Skipton, Yorkshire, on 31 May 1838, was third (and second surviving) son of the Rev. William Sidgwick, head-master of Skipton grammar school, by his wife Mary (Crofts). The father died on 22 May 1841. Henry Sidgwick was sent to a school at Blackheath in 1849, and to Rugby in September 1852, where his mother took a house next year. Edward White Benson (afterwards Archbishop) [q. v. Suppl.], a cousin of the Sidgwicks, and then a master at Rugby, became an inmate of the household. He had a great influence upon Sidgwick, whose sister he afterwards married. The boy was 'bookish' and took no interest in football or cricket. His intellectual development was precocious, and his great ambition was to become a distinguished scholar like his cousin. Instead of standing for a scholarship at Balliol, he decided to enter Trinity College, Cambridge, of which Benson was a fellow. He left Rugby in 1855 as senior exhibitioner, and began residence at Cambridge in the October of that year. His career at college was brilliant. He won a Bell scholarship in 1856, the Craven scholarship in 1857, the Greek epigram in 1858, and was thirty-third wrangler, senior classic, and first chancellor's medallist in 1859. In 1857 he became a scholar, and in 1859 fellow and assistant-tutor, of his college. He had given the highest promise of future distinction in the field of classical scholarship. He was, however, already devoting himself to other aims. He had been led to philosophical studies during his undergraduate career. He had at the beginning of his second year joined the well-known 'Apostles' Society. Its purpose was to encourage the frank and full discussion of every possible question. Sidgwick, though one of the youngest men of the same university standing, showed a remarkable maturity of intellect, which enabled him to take a leading position in the society. The discussions also revealed to him the natural bent of his mind. He resolved to devote his life to the study of great philosophical problems. He and his friends were convinced of the necessity of a reconstruction of religious and social creeds in accordance with scientific methods. He was, like his contemporaries, greatly influenced by the teaching of J. S. Mill, then in the ascendant. He was repelled, however, by the agnostic tendencies of Mill's school, and could not find full satisfaction in its philosophy. He turned for a time to historical inquiry, and in 1862 passed some weeks at Dresden to initiate himself in the study of Arabic. He worked at Arabic and Hebrew for some time with a view to a comparative study of Semitic religions. Becoming convinced that he could not give the time necessary for researches which would after all not answer the fundamental problems, he again returned to purely philosophical questions. He was a member of a little society which used to meet at the house of John Grote, then Knightbridge professor, to read and discuss philosophical papers. His companions were attempting to improve the Cambridge course by a more liberal encouragement of such studies. The moral sciences tripos, founded in 1851, was admitted as a qualification fora degree in 1860. Sidgwick examined in 1865 and 1866, and prepared himself by careful study for the task. In 1869 he exchanged his classical lectureship for a lectureship in moral philosophy, and resolved to devote himself to the foundation of a philosophical school in Cambridge. The agitation for the removal of religious testshad been for some time occupying university reformers. Sidgwick had taken part in the movement. He now became doubtful as to his own position. The declaration which he had made sincerely at the time had ceased to represent his belief. He decided that he was bound to resign the position for which it had qualified him. He gave up his fellowship in October 1869, and his action had a marked effect in stimulating the agitation for the abolition of tests. The measure was finally carried in 1871. His colleagues showed their respect for Sidgwick by permitting him to retain his lectureship, and from this time till his death he continued to lecture in various capacities. In 1872 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the Knightbridge professorship on the death of F. D. Maurice. In 1875 he was appointed to a 'prelectorship on moral and political philosophy' in Trinity College. In 1883 he resigned this post on being elected to the Knightbridge professorship, vacant by the death of Professor Birks, Maurice's successor. Sidgwick's fitness for the post had been established by the publication of his treatise upon ethics in 1874. He was elected to an honorary fellowship of his college in 1881, and "re-elected to an ordinary fellowship in 1885.

Sidgwick had meanwhile taken up other duties. He had felt that his devotion to speculative inquiries did not absolve him from the discharge of practical functions. He had been interested from an early period in the question of female education. The admission of girls to local examinations showed the importance of providing a system of lectures. In 1869 Sidgwick had devised and made known a scheme for this purpose. It was taken up warmly, and its success suggested that a house should be provided at Cambridge for the students. Sidgwick made himself responsible for the rent, and in 1871 invited Miss Ann Jemima Clough [q. v.] to become superintendent. In 1874 a company was formed to place the scheme on a solid foundation. Sidgwick subscribed and energetically supported the scheme, which was carried out by the opening of Newnham Hall in 1876. In the same year Sidgwick married Miss Eleanor Mildred Balfour, sister of the Right Hon. A. J. Balfour. The Sidgwicks took a most important part in the later development of the new system. In 1880 the North Hall was added to Newnham, and Mrs. Sidgwick became vice-president under Miss Clough. The Sidgwicks resided in North Hall for two years, when Mrs. Sidgwick resigned her post. In 1892, upon Miss Clough's death, Mrs. Sidgwick became president of the college, and she and her husband resided there during the remainder of Sidgwick's life. Throughout the whole period Sidgwick took a most active part in the whole movement. He successfully advocated the admission of women to university examinations in 1881. He was always a member of the college council, and was also for a time on the council of the women's college at Girton. Besides advising Miss Clough at every point of the new movement, he interested himself in the details of management ; he made himself beloved by students and teachers, and he contributed most liberally to the funds required for the extension of the college. No one deserves a larger share of the credit for initiating and carrying out successfully a scheme which has had so great an eft'ect upon the education of Englishwomen.

Sidgwick in later years had also to discharge many duties of academical administration. His absence from the governing body prevented him from taking any direct part in the changes made in his college under the commission of 1877. He had, however, the influence due to the recognition of his high qualities of mind and character, both in his own college and in the university generally. When the new university statutes came into force in 1882 he was appointed member of the general board of studies ; he was for some time secretary to the board, and remained a member till 1899. He was also on the council of the senate from 1890 to 1898. The unanimous testi mony of his colleagues shows that he took a very active and influential part in the debates, and united unfailing courtesy to singularly keen and ingenious criticism. He interested himself especially in financial matters. The taxation of the colleges for university purposes had given rise to difficulties in consequence of the decline of the college revenues under agricultural depression. Sidgwick got up the facts, devised an elaborate scheme for reconciling the conflicting interests, and showed that he could have been a competent chancellor of the exchequer. His scheme failed to secure acceptance from an appearance of over-subtlety. His anxiety to do justice to all sides led to some excess of complication and refinement. He is admitted, however, to have taken a most important part in changes by which the system of Cambridge education has been materially modified and new studies successfully introduced. He showed his interest in a very tangible form by munificent subscriptions, which enabled the university to build a museum of physiology, and to start lectures in law and philosophy measures which must otherwise have been abandoned or delayed.

Sidgwick's retirement from the council was partly due to the rejection of the proposal for granting titular degrees to women. He had never been in favour of precisely assimilating male and female education ; and he had some hesitation in accepting the proposals made by the more advanced party. He finally supported them, however, and incurred some unpopularity from conservatives, who dreaded that they might be committed to further measures. Although no one could doubt Sidgwick's absolute sincerity, his action was thought to be dangerous. He did not offer himself for re-election to the council. He was now anxious to finish his literary work, and thought of retiring from his professorship in order to devote himself exclusively to this task.

His labours had not been confined to the fields already indicated. He was an active member of a mendicity society in Cambridge, and of its successor, the Charity Organisation Society. He had also from an early period been interested in 'psychical research,' on the ground that some 'direct proof of continued individual existence' was important to morality. He was president of the society, founded in 1882, for the first three years, and again from 1888 to 1893. He investigated the alleged phenomena with scrupulous rigour, and always continued to attach importance to the results, though he does not appear to have arrived at very definite conclusions. Sidgwick was also a member of several societies founded for the purpose of philosophical discussion. He was one of the first members of the Metaphysical Society, which included some of the most distinguished representatives of opposite schools of belief ; of a similar society in Cambridge ; and of the later Synthetic Society, which aims at facilitating the reconstruction of essential religious beliefs. He became at once, as Canon Gore testifies, 'the life and soul of that society.' Sidgwick was seen at his best in such meetings. Besides his dialectical ability, he was delightful in simply social occasions. He was admittedly a first-rate talker. A singular ingenuity and vivacity of thought and constant play of humour were combined with perfect simplicity, absence of self-assertion, and ready appreciation of other men's points of view. His unmistakable sweetness of nature gained him innumerable friends and made him an invaluable link between members of the various circles to which he belonged. The same qualities gave a special value to his lectures. His intellectual position prevented him from being the lawgiver of a school or the head of a party. His aim was to encourage the freest possible investigation of first principles, and he shrank from any premature adoption of dogmatic conclusions. The position of philosophical studies at Cambridge made his classes very small. But he had several distinguished pupils who have borne most complete testimony to his power of stimulating their intellectual activity, and setting an impressive example of love of truth and of hopefulness not damped by provisional scepticism.

In the beginning of 1900 Sidgwick became aware of symptoms of a dangerous disease. He accented his position with characteristic courage and simplicity, joined in social meetings, spoke with marked brilliance at the Synthetic Society, and showed undiminished interest in his various undertakings. He resigned his professorship, but there were hopes that he might still be able, after a surgical operation, to do some literary work. The hope, however, was disappointed, and he died at the house of his brother-in-law, Lord Rayleigh, on 28 Aug. 1900.

The remarkable quality of Sidgwick's intellect is displayed in all his writings, although his ethical speculations seem to be regarded as the most valuable. The acuteness and subtlety of his thought have suggested to some readers that he was essentially sceptical or preferred a balance between two opinions to the acceptance of either. It should rather be said that he was of singularly cautious temperament, unwilling to advance without making sure of his ground, and anxious to adhere to common sense. He had been greatly influenced by the teaching of J. S. Mill, and was always opposed to mystical and transcendental methods. His 'Methods of Ethics' (1874) is intended to reconcile the utilitarian with the intuitionist theories, and to show that, properly understood, Butler and Kant may supply a rational base for the morality which, like J. S. Mill's, takes the general happiness for its criterion. He holds, however, that both are opposed to the egoistic system, the irrationality of which cannot be demonstrated without a philosophical elaboration not as yet satisfactorily achieved. Whatever the value of the conclusion, the book has stimulated thought by its candid and thorough examination of most important ethical problems. The 'Principles of Political Economy' (1883) was a product of Sidgwick's early interest in social problems. He again starts from the teaching of J. S. Mill, and endeavours by acute criticisms to get rid of the excessive rigidity of the old 'classical' economy, while showing that it embodied much sound reasoning which required to be taken into account by social reformers. Professor Marshall says that the discussion of the proper functions of government is admitted to be 'by far the best thing of the kind in any language.' His power of dealing with practical questions is shown by the memoranda which he was invited to lay before the commissions on the financial relations of England and Ireland, and upon local taxation. The 'Elements of Politics' (1891) is intended to supply the want of an adequate treatise upon the subject by starting from the old lines of Bentham and Mill. It seems to share in some degree their weakness of inadequately recognising the importance of historical methods. Sidgwick seems to have felt this, and in later years had given some lectures upon the history of political institutions. It is not known whether they are in a state for publication. He left a considerable mass of manuscript, dealing with metaphysical and other topics, of which, it is hoped, a considerable part may be published. Sidgwick contributed many articles to ' Mind,' of which he was for some time a principal supporter, and to other philosophical journals. He wrote in various reviews both upon philosophical and literary matters. He was an admirable literary critic, and his conversation often turned upon that topic. It is hoped that some of these articles may be collected.

A portrait of Sidgwick by Mr. Shannon is in the college hall at Newnham.

A meeting was held in Trinity College on 26 Nov. 1900, at which it was unanimously resolved to promote a memorial at Cambridge, though the precise form to be taken is not yet decided.

Sidgwick's works are: 1. 'The Ethics of Conformity and Subscription,' 1871. 2. 'The Methods of Ethics,' 1874; a second edition appeared in 1877, and a third in 1884; supplements to these were separately published in 1878 and 1884, giving the alterations made in the previous editions. A sixth edition is about to appear. 3. 'The Principles of Political Economy,' 1883; 2nd edit 1887. 4. 'The Scope and Method of Economic Science,' 1885 (presidential address to the economic section of the British Association). 5. 'Outlines of the History of Ethics,' 1886 (enlarged from the article 'Ethics ' in the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica,' 9th edition). 6. 'The Elements of Politics,' 1891.

[Article by the present writer in Mind for January 1900. Information was kindly given by Mrs. Sidgwick. Mr. Arthur Sidgwick, Dr. Jackson of Trinity College, Dr. Venn of Caius College, Professor James Ward, and Professor Maitland also gave information; sec also notices by the master of Christ's College in the Cambridge Review, 25 Oct. 1900; by Sir F. Pollock in the Pilot, 15 Sept. 1900; by Mr. Masterman in the Commonwealth for October 1900; by the late F. W. H. Myers in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research for December 1900; by Dr. J. W. Keynes in the Economic Journal for December 1900; and by Professor Sorley in the International Journal of Ethics for January 1901; and report of the meeting at Trinity College in the Cambridge University Reporter, 7 Dec. 1900. For some autobiographical statements see the Life of Archbishop Benson, i. 145-51, 249-55, and Life of Tennyson, i. 300-4. For an account of Sidgwick's activity at Newnham see Miss Clough's Memoir of Ann Jemima Clough, 1897, pp. 130, 133, 145-55, 161, 172, 181, 189, 193, 207, 319, 334, 339. See also interesting notices in the Cambridge Letter, 1900 (privately printed for the Newnham College Club).]

L. S.